Despite being an avid bourbon fan, I have always loved Japanese whisky, and benefitted from relatively early access (for the United States) back in 2011. Toki Underground (a legendary ramen joint in Washington DC that I wholeheartedly recommend to anyone visiting the city) carried an enormous selection when it first opened in 2011, and I enthusiastically drank everything I could afford. So, when offered a cask strength single barrel Mizunara Oak Japanese whisky for less than $100, it was an obvious “yes.”
Mizunara Oak – translated from Japanese to English as “Water Oak” – is a famously difficult wood to work with for barrel making. When the Mizunara is seasoned properly, it is brittle and difficult to manipulate, an issuethat probably contributed to the scarcity of coopers as Mizunara became more popular. The wood is also exceptionally porous, which necessitates thicker barrel staves (compounding the aforementioned brittleness issue) and, like some European oak, requires wood to be split along its grain (vs. sawn) to remain watertight. Perhaps most importantly from a consumer’s standpoint: Mizunara casks are very expensive relative to some of the most common oak globally, including American White Oak, French Limousin European Oak (a household favorite), and Hungary-sourced European Oak. According to the previously linked May 2023 Wine Enthusiast Article, Mizunara casks cost over $6,000 each, which makes the cost of Mizunara-aged products more understandable.
Kaiyō was allegedly founded in 2007 and is a blending house, which the company’s delightfully blunt FAQ website clearly and concisely states. However, the American whiskey drinker’s association with the phrase “independent bottler” or “blending house” probably short-shrifts Kaiyō, which does its own maturation and is clearly very passionate about barrel and distillate procurement.
As of 2021, Kaiyō did not bottle its whisky in Japan and instead relied on a method similar, albeit less circuitous, to Jefferson’s Ocean by transporting its barrels as cargo to England where they were bottled in Liverpool, a journey of roughly 90 to 100 days. Incidentally, Kaiyō translates from Japanese as “ocean,” which further compounds the similarities.
As of 2021, Kaiyō did not bottle anything younger than three years, and exclusively used malted barley as its distillate that was always run twice through pot stills, according to an interview with a U.S.-based brand ambassador. Because this article could easily turn into a novel, I am intentionally avoiding going too in depth on the evolving Japanese whisky industry production definitions and where Kaiyō fits into the mix, but, by all accounts, Kaiyō uses Japanese distillate for its sourced new make.
This review continues my commitment to having the bulk of my reviews cover relatively easy-to-access products. A quick online search for Kaiyō single casks both for local-ish stores and nationwide reveals their ubiquity online and relatively affordable pricing around or below $100. As with any single barrel review, your mileage may vary, but my thoughts on this particular cask’s expression should be pretty clear towards the bottom.
Kaiyō Whisky Japanese Mizunara Oak Single Cask Strength – Review
112 proof (56% ABV), over 10 years old and non-chillfiltered 100% malted barley whisky. I paid under $100 for this bottle.
Color: Amontillado sherry.
On the nose: Madagascan spicy vanilla, coconut, oat, nutmeg, bitter orange peel, and cedar are dominant scents with an undergirding of ash, lychee, rambutan, honey, sarsaparilla, and crème brûlée sugar.
In the mouth: To be honest, my gut reaction to drinking this pour has been alternating between two flavor profiles: Scotch matured in sherry casks and the more classic Mizunara profile of vanilla, incense, and tropical fruit… but strangely never both simultaneously. After 13 ounces of trying to nail it down, I have decided to give up and just embrace it.
Everything hits very abruptly right away at the front of the palate almost through the finish with a brash cacophony of flavor, with bold vanilla and yuzu, coconut, ash, and heavily oxidized funky sherry. Towards the back of the palate into the finish, the vanilla and yuzu fall off and the sherry and ash become more prominent but fall out of balance. These flavors are accompanied by a touch of incense and, regrettably, the sherry taking on a light but noticeable rancid walnut and fuel oil note that suggests a flaw in the new make. Into the finish, these unpleasant flavors taper, leaving behind the woodier aspects, as well as incense and ash.
In the unlikely event someone has read all my reviews, they probably noted that I skew towards below average scoring. I do this, in part, because alcohol is poison and it should accordingly taste delicious to offset the mostly detrimental health effects, but also because some bigger producers phone it in. This Kaiyō pour has the best of both worlds: it’s good booze and it’s a relatively small producer clearly giving it 100%. I share my bottle of Kaiyō with friends before any other bottle in the house almost as a matter of habit whenever anyone comes over to evangelize its quality and craft.
That said, I wonder if it is not quite living up to its full potential. It’s like looking at someone taking the silver in the 100 meter dash at the Olympics and knowing they could have taken the gold if they had just done a bit more physical therapy. I am getting all of the purported coconut, a wisp of the sandalwood, and a bit of the incense famously imparted by Mizunara, but there is that harsh element at back of the palate into the finish that I can’t help but think would have been smoothed out with a bit more time in the barrel. In this instance, I think another year or three would have rounded it out to put it into the pantheon of best lifetime whisky tasting experiences. I also think the funky sherry fuel flavor may merit a bit more attentiveness to the quality of the sourced distillate up front, though I have noticed I am more critical of petroleum flavors in things like Caroni rums than others.
Despite this relatively small critique, if you have even a passing love of Japanese malt whisky, then I would recommend at least trying a pour of a Kaiyō Single Cask. I have already raised my hand up for an upcoming bottle of unspecified single cask Kaiyō, which is probably the best indicator of how seriously good I think their older products are. Despite the slight loss of balance into the finish, I consider this pour great and very fairly priced given the cost of the barrel and its age, which bumps it to 7/10.